Pets in ‘The Savages’

I was pretty sure I’d like The Savages — Laura Linney as a depressed playwright/temp, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a thwarted, dysfunctional prof endlessly working on a book about Brecht, sibling rivalry, wounded narcissism, what’s not to like? But I liked it even more than I expected. (Maybe I just like movies about Buffalo — I loved Buffalo 66). One bit I especially liked (warning, spoiler ahead) was when Wendy (the Laura Linney character) tells her brother that she’s been awarded a Guggenheim to work on her play. We believe it too (we see her open the letter and gasp) although it seems a bit unlikely; eventually we learn that it was actually a FEMA grant that she applied for on the basis of losing her temp job after 9/11. This says so much so economically about her and their brother-sister relationship: she feels intellectually and creatively unrewarded, and not fully respected by him; she yearns for recognition, praise, support; and it’s fitting, given her sense of being generally traumatized by life, that the grant she does get would not be from the Guggenhein Foundation but the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There are interesting things going on about animals and pets throughout. When Wendy is having bad sex with her married lover, she looks over at his sweet golden lab (I think) and kind of reaches out to its paw, with the obvious implication that she feels a more genuine connection with the dog than with its owner. She eventually dumps the guy because he neglects and almost kills her plant, and she’s always concerned about her cat Genghis, whom she drags around in a pet carrier. At one point the brother is awakened by a midnight phone call; we assume it’s about their father in the nursing home, but it turns out that it’s the cat that is the problem — Genghis has escaped in their father’s room. In other words, the filmmaker (Tamara Jenkins) plays a little with our sense of who can appropriately fill the position of “object of care.” The father is the primary such object but the role is also filled by a dog, cat, and plant.

The movie ends with a nice touch. The married boyfriend returns to Wendy to try to make up with a bouquet of flowers (after the plant episode). She asks where Marly (his dog) is and he explains that she’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow: her hips are shot, she can’t move around and is horribly depressed, there is an operation they could do but it’s complicated (and presumably expensive). “She’s just old,” he says. With sympathy — the point is not that he’s awful to his dog — but it’s a reminder of the expendibility of every creature: we are all, we’re reminded, in a process of decay, our bodies are falling apart (see the photo of the Seymour Hoffman character above in a neck brace), we’re all a bit like Marly, and look what has to happen to her, “put to sleep” (like the cat, she’s a proxy for the father.) The scene ends with Wendy asking “can I just ask you one favor?” and then it cuts to a year later when her play is being performed. We think, “did she ask him to help her produce her play?”– and then we see her jogging with Marly trotting behind in some kind of elaborate dog wheelchair contraption. She has adopted Marly, the old dog, and offered her the unconditional love and care she never got and always craved from her father, and that she could not herself give him. The impossible wish of the movie has been that the father, or maybe anyone, could get better, not be sick, not decay and fall humiliatingly apart; in these final scenes, Marly gets to fulfill this wish that has been otherwise denied.

Boss donkey

not an actual donkey we sawSarah and I and the girls went to visit some donkeys and a horse at a nearby stable. They had gone last week without me. I wasn’t sure it was necessarily OK to wander in and feed the animals, but Sarah was confident this was all right. There were 7 or so donkeys and a horse, also a sweet barn cat who followed us out to the field and acted as if she wanted some celery and carrots too. The donkeys were very adorable; they seem miniaturized like a puppy or kitten. There was one boss donkey who wanted all the food and definitely wanted to be in charge of who got the food when. There was a bit of boss-donkey-management required — one of us had to tempt him away to one side with some good carrot pieces and then the other subservient donkeys could quickly be fed a few pieces.

How Puppies Die

I was a parent teacher the other morning at my daughters’ preschool and witnessed a kind of amazing moment. C&I and their new-best-friend A., who is 5 years old, and three boys (mostly younger) went in the corner of the yard and sat on this little structure and explained to me, “this is where we go to tell sad stories.” A. said she would tell about “how puppies die.” Her first story was about one sentence long – the puppy went out in the street and it got hit by a car. The boy F. was pretending to be a puppy and he put his hands up in a sad-paw gesture and whined, and C. and I. and A. all said consolingly, “don’t worry, puppy, we wouldn’t let YOU go in the street.” The next story was a little more complex: a puppy got into the playground and a big heavy slide fell on him and crushed him. And, it had a sharp point and it cut right through his back. Once again, F. whined and the three girls said “oh, don’t worry puppy, we would never let YOU go into the playground.” The mood was sort of excited and upbeat, maybe like telling ghost stories around the campfire? A student teacher said “oh they did that for about two hours the other day.”

Later I asked C & I about why they liked “sad stories” so much and they said “because we’re interested in what’s inside bodies.” So sad stories are apparently ones that involve injury to the body broaching the boundary between what’s inside and outside. I wonder how general a principle of narrative that might be.